My mother-in-law has a Christmas tradition she incorporates into family gatherings and parties she hosts during the holidays. It's a group reading of one of the plays ("The Kings in Judaea") from Dorothy L. Sayers's The Man Born to Be King. She's been doing it for almost a decade now and has trouble keeping things organized. There are over 22 speaking characters, so many of the people reading have to juggle a handful of parts; reading from a collection of dog-eared photo-copies and well-marked-up paperbacks. Since the number of people changes from reading to reading, she has multiple sets of scripts with confusing notes as to which parts are to be read. In addition, the family children are expected to sit and listen to the hour-long reading, yet have little to do to keep themselves respectfully attentive.
So, as her Christmas gift, I programmed a Flash-based Script Generator program to help her produce less confusing script assignments and made a wooden playset to keep the children occupied and involved in the reading.
Step 1: Designing the Playset Pieces
Originally, I planned to make each play piece with a front and back shot of the character. But, with Christmas fast approaching, I decided to go for the much easier design of front-only character depictions. This had the added benefit only requiring half the number of pieces since I could put a character on both sides.
I started by organizing the characters in a spreadsheet so I could pair each character on a piece with a character they wouldn't be simultaneously onstage with. End the end, I had to break this rule on one piece - The Zorastes/ High Priest piece. But, it totally worked anyway since even though those two are onstage simultaneously, Zorastes is first seen when King Herod exclaims, "Zorastes, what are you doing there? I see you hiding behind the skirts of the High Priest." So, during the performance, that piece is simply spun around to reveal Zorastes on the back side of the High Priest (genius!).
I shortcut the design of the characters by shamlessly stealing content from the internet. There's an online fanasy role-playing game called Renaissance Kingdoms. The creators of the game, Celsius Online, have created a nifty wardrobe simulator to see what your player would look like in certain fashions. I realize using copyrighted material is wrong, but hopefully this free advertisement for their game makes up for my transgression.
The variety of faces, hairstyles, and clothing made it pretty easy to make the characters fairly identifiable. Which, considering I had to build 20 different ones, is an achievement. I pulled screen captures into PhotoShop, added a black background, a slight outline glow, and a bottom nameplate. I also created a series of circles to be mounted on top of the pieces so they're easier to identify from above. I even color-coded the names on the circles for the act in which they appear.
After I'd created the character images, I paired them up into a series of 5" x 7" jpg files and uploaded them to Walmart.com for printing.
Step 2: Constructing the Playset Pieces
Each piece is made from two 2" X 4 1/2" X 1/4" pine rectangles, with a 10" square cross-section dowel sandwiched between them. The top of each dowel is capped with a flat-bottomed wooden ball. I assembled the pieces with wood glue and spray painted them black. Then, I cut out the character images from the 5" X 7" photos and used spray adhesive to glue them to the pieces. I topped each one off with its top name circle and they were done.
Step 3: The Playset Stage & Storage Box
The playset stage is part of the storage box's bottom. I cut out strips of foam board and hot glued them into a 22" x 12" x 4", open-top box. Then, I cut strips and glued them into a squared archway and stage backdrop. I designed the backdrop to lay in the box when stored, and to fit into a slot in the back of the box when setup. I also assembled a stage floor out of foam board and glued it in the center of the storage box. I covered the stage with brown vinyl to make it more floor-like. Underneath the stage is a storage compartment for the playset pieces.
The stage archway is decorated with images I took from some antique frames I found on the internet. I resized them to fit the stage archway and saved them as an 8" x 10" jpg to be printed at Walmart.
I made three backdrops for the scenes in the play: Herod's Palace, The Shepperd's House, and The Wise Men's Tents. I swiped a copy of Domenico Ghirlandaio's painting, Herod's Banquet from the internet and heavily PhotoShopped it to remove the people. I did the same thing for the Shepherd's House with Robert Campin's Mérode Alerpiece. The final backdrop for the Magi's Tents was made from a hodge-podge of pieces from different images. The drapes are from El Greco's The Annunciation (1576), Orazio Gentileschi's Annunciation, and Raphael's Madonna with the Fish. The foreground is from a bit of Sandro Botticelli's Cestello Annunciation, And most of the background is from Titian's Pastoral Concert. The rugs on the floor are a pair of unknown oriental rug images I found online.
I sized each backdrop to span two 8" x 10" photos and (again) uploaded them to be printed at Walmart. I attached the photos to pieces of black mat board with some spray adhesive.
I finished the box by making a lid from black mat board. Then, I made a custom label in PhotoShop, printed it at Walmart, and glued it to the lid with more spray adhesive.
Step 4: The Script Generator Software
The purpose of the script generator is to make assigning multiple parts to the party guests easier. Now, instead of using the same set of photocopies and scribbling the assigned parts, she just runs the program, selects the parts for that script, and prints it out.
I programmed the script generator in Adobe Flash. I began by scanning the 20 pages of the play and importing them. I set each image as a movieclip and created layers in each one that highlight the various characters' lines. Then, a setup a main menu with check boxes for each part that tell Flash to turn on or off the highlight layer for that character. Then I used a standard print component to print the script with the selected parts highlighted. I also added an arrow in the margin of each highlight layer so it would be more noticible when printed in black and white.
After exporting the flash and html files, I saved them, the graphic files for all of the playset pieces and backdrops onto a CD-ROM. I glued a CD envelop inside the storage box's compartment so she wouldn't loose it.
Step 5: Ready for Delivery
To really complete the gift, I printed up a set of instructions and glued them to the back of one of the backdrops. It basically outlines how to navigate the Script Generator and how to put the stage archway into the specially-made slot at the rear of the stage.
Also, I included a semi-serious End User Agreement that stipulates that whenever I participate in the reading, I'm only required to read the part of the Shepherd... who has one line in the whole play.
So, now the only thing left to do is show it off to all my friends and family and wait for my due praise. Ah, yes... the true spirit of Christmas.